Children cannot learn or grow healthy on an empty stomach.
This principle underscored actions taken by Congress and the Department of Agriculture (USDA) since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. When schools closed en masse in 2020, food insecurity soared as participation in school meal programs plummeted. More than 38 million Americans struggled with hunger in 2020, with dramatically high rates among households with children.
Congress responded with what ultimately became one of the most effective federal policies of the past two years: giving the USDA the power to implement nutritional waivers for children that provide schools and daycares with a essential flexibility in terms of when, where and how meals are served. Additionally, in recognition of the ongoing economic fallout associated with the pandemic, the USDA and Congress have ensured that sufficient funds are available for all children to receive these meals free of charge, regardless of family income level. Without these measures, a bad food insecurity situation would have been much worse.
Two years later, families and schools are slowly beginning to recover from the pandemic, but we’re not out of the woods yet. More than 3 million children fell back into poverty in 2022, food insecurity is on the rise again and school catering services are still struggling to regain their financial footing. Still, child nutrition waivers are set to expire on June 30.
Congress must find a way to benefit our children, our families, and our schools by extending these waivers at least through the 2022-23 school year.
For tens of millions of children, school meals are an essential part of the school day. Children get up to half of their daily calories at school; for many, schools are the only constant source of nutritious meals. School meals are often the healthiest foods children will have access to on any given day, and research shows that healthier meals reduce the risk of obesity in children growing up in poverty while helping children succeed in class. For families who depend on it every day, school meals are not just a convenience, but a lifeline.
This lifeline extends not only to children’s physical health, but also to their mental health. A 2021 research review found that “food insecurity was significantly and positively associated with multiple indicators of psychological distress.” A recent study found that food insecurity was associated with a 257% higher risk of anxiety and a 253% higher risk of depression. America’s youth mental health crisis will require a comprehensive set of solutions, and ensuring that all children are well nourished must be a central part of that response.
Our entire nation should celebrate that almost all children have returned to school; 99.7% of students currently enjoy the many benefits of in-person instruction. But we shouldn’t confuse a return to classrooms with a return to normal school activities, particularly around meals. A recent national survey found that 95% of school canteens are struggling with staff shortages and 97% are facing rising costs due to supply chain issues. It’s no wonder, then, that 90% of school food authorities have opted to use nutrition waivers for children in the current school year, according to a recent USDA survey.
It will likely take years for schools to recover financially from the devastating effects of the pandemic. Even with waivers in place, school food services suffered more than $2 billion in lost federal revenue between March and November 2020. If the waivers expire prematurely, schools currently receiving higher reimbursement rates for meals served will see these rates drop significantly. Schools will again be forced to spend their already stretched resources processing and verifying revenue claims to see who qualifies for free and reduced-price meals – a system that leaves many needy students absent in school. due to strict income eligibility guidelines and application challenges. . Children who manage to qualify regularly face stigma, often being forced to stand in separate lines or given different meals.
Given today’s economic conditions, schools would do much better to focus their resources on helping children learn and keeping them safe and healthy. And all families should continue to have peace of mind with free meals. A systematic review of 47 studies found it to be a wise and life-saving investment that reduces food insecurity, boosts school attendance and academic achievement, and benefits schools more financially.
We all hope that this moment marks the end of the pandemic as we know it. But pandemic or not, this nation shouldn’t put up with even one starving child in school. Child nutrition waivers were the right decision two years ago, and they are now. Congress should extend them without delay.
Jamie Bussel is Senior Program Officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Twitter: @jbussel. Luis Guardia is the president of the Food Research & Action Center. Twitter: @fracprez
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